TRON: Legacy Review
TRON: Legacy is the first film in a long time that I have truly regretted not having seen at the cinema. IMAX, 3D, it was touted as the next big thing after Avatar in terms of visual effects, but I was so uncertain as to the substance – particularly given the lack thereof in Avatar – that I just didn’t make the time to see it during its theatrical run. It didn’t help that I wasn’t a huge fan of the original (not out of choice, but just because I was too young to be a ‘child of Tron’), but it’s only with 20:20 hindsight that I realise that you don’t have to be. TRON: Legacy may well be a sequel to a near thirty year old movie, but it is such a hell of an audiovisual spectacle that it stands alone as being one of the best movie experiences that I have had since Inception.
Of course it helps to have a background in the origins of Tron, but it is not a necessity (my review is here if you really need more info). In Legacy the story basically revolves around a computer programmer called Kevin Flynn, who started working for a company called Encom over 30 years ago. After having inadvertently discovered a way of transporting himself into the computer world that he created, through use of a ‘laser’, he decided that he could not split his time between expanding this electronic realm and bringing up his young son Sam, and chose to make a computer copy of himself, named Clu, which worked as the ‘control’ program in Flynn’s newly created world, entitled The Grid. Unfortunately things didn’t go as expected, and Flynn soon disappeared from the real world entirely, leaving his son an orphan. Now, twenty years later, Flynn’s son has grown up ignoring his responsibilities, allowing his father’s company to fall into the ‘Microsoft’ trend of money-grabbing under its new management, and only occasionally diving in to wreak havoc once a year, in remembrance of his father. When Alan Bradley, the man who created the original ‘Tron’ program, approaches Sam with news that he has received a message, which he thinks may have come from Sam’s father, the young man duly investigates, and finds a world beyond anything that he could possibly imagine.
A couple of years ago director Joseph Kosinski, together with original Tron actor Jeff Bridges, attended a San Diego Comic Con event where they showed a teaser promo for a potential sequel to the original 1982 movie Tron. It was entitled TR2N and depicted a lightcycle dual being watched by an older Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, looking down from his isolated mountain retreat as a masked driver clinically eliminated an opponent. Flipping his visor up, the driver revealed himself to be a younger Kevin Flynn (a digitally enhanced Bridges). It boasted impressive visuals which took the original concepts to the next level, and it actually summed up a pretty amazing premise in just a few minutes. And the audience absolutely loved it. Little did they know that, right there and then, these fans were deciding the very fate of TRON: Legacy. Had the reaction not been so universally positive, this movie may never have been green-lit. And it is a movie. Debate may rage on into eternity as to the difference between a film and a movie, but Legacy will honestly never be regarded as a classic film. It may never even be deemed a good film. It is, however, a fantastic movie experience, the evolutionary next step in post-Avatar visual extravagance.
For me, it has three integral elements: Jeff Bridges, cutting edge visual effects, and one of the best movie soundtracks that I have ever come across, provided by the band Daft Punk. Story was never going to be an issue – if Avatar could get away with some kind of hackneyed Dances with Wolves variation, TRON: Legacy really didn’t need to worry about meeting such a low standard. Indeed, if closely inspected, it treads some very familiar territory to the original Tron story – a cyber-world where a malevolent, dictatorial control program rules over other programs with an iron fist, eliminating those who do not obey the rules by placing them into a variety of deadly gladiatorial combat games. Into this world an outsider is thrown – a “user” who may just be the only person who can stop the fascist “master” control program, his oppressive policing force, and his plans for world domination.
But I have no big issue with the plot as all it really needed to do was string the audiovisual proceedings together in a relatively easy-to-follow, loosely coherent fashion. Which is exactly what it does. Well-structured, the narrative injects just enough Matrix-esque metaphysical musings, notions about God and a ‘higher power’ and themes relating the The Grid to our very own increasingly scientific ‘advanced’ culture (the comparison between Sam’s encounter with the ‘real’ police and the ‘virtual’ police is hard to ignore), to enable viewers to feel that necessary pull of depth to the proceedings. Sure, these are just seeds; ideas which are never fully realised or developed other than in short soundbites that usually emanate from one of the more contemplative characters (i.e. Bridges’ Kevin Flynn), but they are enough to give the film some substance. It’s still not The Matrix in terms of philosophical pause-for-thought – not even close – but it’s more than enough to allow for 2 hours of pleasurable, substantive Tron ‘experience’, the majority of which is spent in the cyber-world itself. It’s a heady mix of style and some substance. Sure, the style may be prevalent – but there is something to the effort beyond just audiovisual mayhem.
Oh, and while we’re talking about the cyber-world, did I ever have a problem with humans entering the cyber-world? Not for a second. Ever since Neo entered The Matrix, the concept of programming code representing objects and people, and humans interacting directly with such a world, has been relatively easy to accept – a fact which is somewhat ironic if you consider that the original Tron movie was something of a precursor to The Matrix in the first place – making Legacy something of a full-circle trip. Similarly, the concept of programs fighting to enter the ‘real’ world didn’t really bother me – after all, Flynn got digitally resurrected in the original Tron, how is this any different?
Where The Matrix had Keanu Reeves’s Neo, and the original Tron had Bruce Boxleiter’s eponymous hero and Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, Legacy gets not one but two Flynns. Now I’ve heard plenty of complaints about Garrett Hedlund’s Sam Flynn, how the actor was wooden as hell and brought nothing to the role, but I’m honestly just glad we weren’t lumbered with another generic performance from Sam Worthington. Hedlund injects enough genuine passion and energy into the younger Flynn to make the role different at the very least, even if it is not fully rounded. Really, I had no big problems with the acting (Fans, have you seen the acting in the original Tron? Newcomers, have you seen the acting in Avatar?) – sure House’s Olivia Wilde seldom goes beyond a skin-deep rendition, but those disarmingly penetrating big eyes will hypnotise you almost as much as her figure-hugging latex form; and yes, Bruce Boxleiter has better success as a younger CG version of his Tron entity than he does as an ageing senior exec (and, wow, was that Cillian Murphy who popped up for just two lines???); and I’m really never going to fully forgive Michael Sheen for camping it up to the extreme in a worthless cameo (it’s the one thing I think is really going to date this movie); but the reality is that the movie is held together by not one, but two performances from the marvellous Jeff Bridges.
Bridges, in his more mature years, has proven himself to be a fabulous actor – and not one restricted by style or genre. He’s not afraid of comedy (The Big Lebowski), of serious drama (Crazy Heart), or of playing a comic book supervillain (Iron Man). In fact, you can see elements of all three incorporated into his role here as the aged Flynn, filled with decades of regret and lost within a world that he created, but still boasting a zen-like demeanour and a brooding intensity beneath the surface. If anything I wanted more old Flynn, the Tron equivalent of Alec Guiness's Obi-Wan Kenobi. His Neo-like control of The Grid (previously touched on in the original Tron as well) is something that we could have done with more of – there’s no denying that – and he brings plenty of much-needed presence and weight to the proceedings.
Interestingly, we also get a younger Flynn. And, actually, if you want to get down to semantics, Bridges is brought to life in three different forms – a young Flynn, an old Flynn, and as Clu (who just looks like a younger Flynn, only sporting an orange suit rather than a blue one). This is the first part of the visual side of Legacy that I would really like to explore. In my review of Avatar I noted how both the Cameron bulldozer and movies like The Surrogates had given audiences a hint of the future to come; a future where any actor could play any part because technology would enable them to be, digitally, made to look younger. Legacy is the next step in this, even if it is still just a baby step.
Clu (and young Flynn) are still incomplete entities – you’ll never be completely fooled by the effects, however advanced – but there are glimpses of pure genius. The flashback fight between young Flynn, Tron (a digitally young Bruce Boxleiter) and Clu, is remarkably good. And the scene where an angry Clu has a bit of an outburst and swipes a desk clear of all its surface objects is pure Jeff Bridges. In these, and a few other brief moments, it’s genuinely pretty convincing effects work. Of course that opening scene with the son was terrible – perhaps a bit misguided too – but Clu more than makes up for it further down the line. Boxleiter too does remarkably well as Tron, arguably far better than as his older, real self (just wished they’d featured more of him). It may well take another decade or so before technology allows seamless digital ‘youth’, but Legacy is certainly the next evolutionary step.
It’s not the only visual area where Legacy is groundbreaking – its IMAX-shot light-cycle scenes are just the icing on the cake, with an amazing world created to draw the audience in. The director’s background in both effects work and architecture is evident right from the outset, using both lavish real sets and plenty of digital imagery to bring The Grid to life like something out of your wildest dreams. Onxy monoliths abound, darkness encroaches at ever corner, and light emanates only from the prevalent neon strips that cover everything – from the imaginative vehicles, both land and air-based, to the elaborate outfits. Give me The Grid over Pandora any day of the week and twice on IMAX special screening days. Oh how I wish I’d seen this movie at the cinema.
One thing you can definitely recreate in the home environment is the soundscape. And Tron: Legacy is one of the most aurally engulfing films that I have ever come across. It’s difficult to say what the movie would have been like without Bridges, or without such elaborate visuals, but I simply cannot imagine what it would have been like without Daft Punk’s score. It’s that good. Imbued with elements reminiscent of Vangelis's immotal Blade Runner score, taking some percussion cues from the likes of DJ Shadow, Daft Punk integrate their well-known beat-laden electronica style with excellent use of a glorious orchestra, bringing the soundscape alive to match – and often excel – the visuals. Seriously, they frequently slow everything down, drop out the effects noises, and bring up the score just to pulse in the background – and it’s astounding, raising the hairs on your arms, leaving you totally absorbed and enthralled by what is going on. There are only a smattering of film scores that can have this effect on you at key points during the movie (like Sunshine), but Daft Punk managed to make it happen for almost the entire runtime. I thought Inception’s score was great, but Legacy was the one which deserved at least an Oscar nod. The music makes this movie – turn this baby up to 11.
All in all, Tron: Legacy may have its shortcomings (an underdeveloped philosophical undercurrent, far too little exploration of the Tron character himself, and literally no background into the human powers-that-be – namely Cillian Murphy as the son of Dillinger, the original Tron uber-villain) but it’s got more than enough to keep you satisfied as you go on what is one hell of a wild, fantastical ride. It’s the best movie ‘experience’ that I’ve had since Inception, an ultra-stylish audiovisual blast which was so overwhelming that I actually wanted to come back for more. Do we need this to be the start of a new Tron trilogy? I’m not sure. But it’s a hell of a sequel to a cult classic which, whilst groundbreaking at the time, is dated as hell now. The mantle has officially passed. Welcome to the future.
"The Grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then...one day... I got in."